The Olympic Story for Schools

In this Gallery you can read about the Olympics and see images of the engineering and construction of the site and some interesting examples of the much talked about logo.

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By 2003 the Olympic movement was in crisis. Montreal was still paying for its 1976 Games (aka ‘the Big Owe’). Costs were spiralling out of control and facilities in cities that had hosted the Games, were under utilised. Depressingly, it looked as though the list of cities that could afford to stage the Games would forever be limited to the usual suspects. All this reflected badly on the global movement which had been founded in the 1890s by French sports educationalist, Baron de Coubertin.

So, in 2003 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decreed henceforth there would be no more white elephants. From now on host cities must demonstrate that their Olympic facilities will have a viable local future i.e. ‘Legacy’. (Barcelona 1992 is generally considered to have made the most of its Olympic opportunity, using the event to overhaul its public transport infrastructure by positioning Olympic venues all over the city.)

The past

But let us go back 1,000 years – not to the ancient Olympics which flourished for over 1200 years before being stamped out in 393AD by Christian Roman emperors, writing the Games off as irredeemably pagan.

Rather, let’s return to the East London of the early Middle Ages, to the Lower Lea Valley, the site of the looming 30th Olympic Games (aka XXX Olympiad).

One thousand years ago the Lea River Valley was an area of outstanding natural beauty – beautiful enough to attract agriculture-loving Cistercian monks to found Langthorne Abbey, and derive a tidy income from grinding wheat for flour in their water mills along the Lee River.

Move on 800 years and the Lea had paid the price for its useful tidal surges - becoming one of the most polluted rivers in Britain. Down the centuries, the river has been embanked, diverted, culverted and canalised (aka the Bow Back rivers). The water mills morphed into factories and eventually heavy industry, and the Lea sickened as the ‘Stink’ industries set up shop, and London and its sewage system expanded into Hertfordshire and Essex.

Then, the immense Royal Docks opened beside the Thames. ‘The Royals’ were the first docks in the world with their own integrated railway, taking goods from the ships to the vast shunting yards beside the Lea River at Stratford in East London, for reloading onto goods trains bound for destinations all over Britain. Meanwhile, down at the mouth of the Lea, the Thames Iron Works was banging out Dreadnought warships for the Royal Navy and industry doesn’t get much heavier than that.  By the time the Royal Docks finally died in the 1970s, the Lower Lea Valley was degraded enough to be known as the ‘London’s backyard’.

The drive for change

So we arrive in 1984, when a young minister Andrew Mawson arrived at the dilapidated, freezing Victorian United Reform Church at Bromley-by-Bow. On all sides were dysfunctional housing estates, with 95% of income derived from state sources. Mawson was frustrated that the Churches and the voluntary sector with all their management committees were failing to provide significant change for local people.

Over the next 25 years, his church grew into the internationally recognised Bromley-by-Bow Centre, providing healthcare, education, jobs and services for the community.

It was over a discussion at the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, that the concept of hosting the Olympics was first raised: surely only something as grand-standing as the Olympic Games could drive the changes needed to revitalise such a huge area? So the fight began that lead in 2003 to Tony Blair formally making a bid for the 2012 Games, endorsing a master plan drawn up by Barbara Cassiani CEO of Go Airlines.

So in July 2005 middle distance Gold Medallist Seb Coe took the UK Bid Team to Singapore to make the case for London 2012. The Team was light on politicians and heavy on East London kids. To win an unprecedented third Olympiad, London has had to promise to inspire young people into sport, and pledge to create a sustainable new urban park out of London’s ‘backyard’. Coe also promised that the 2012 Olympics would be the first green Games, the first Summer Games not to harm the planet.

‘Sport – the silent social worker’

Since then, Beijing has come and gone. What a spectacle! But expect Beijing to be the last of its kind. Beijing 2008 may have established China as a hi-tech player on the world’s stage, but London won’t spend a third of Beijing’s budget. So how will the world remember London 2012?

The dream of Coe and his team is to encourage young people into a life fired by the joy of effort made through sport. ‘Sport the silent social worker’, ‘Team not gang’ ‘Fit not fat’ are some of Coe’s mantras. So, many of London’s most iconic sights will serve as back drops to Olympic events: Hyde Park for the triathalon, Hampton Court and the Surrey Hills for the road cycling, Windsor Castle for the rowing, Horseguards Parade for beach volleyball. Meanwhile Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and St Pauls will backdrop the Marathon.  All ‘media friendly’ sights familiar the world over from countless movies, TV and books.

The first Green Games

But the focus for most of the Games and the Paralympic Games will be the new urban sports park being built on the Lea River in Stratford East London. This is where London’s Olympic lessons are being learned.

Part of the London pledge, putting on the first sustainability Summer Games, has meant commitment to several things - combating climate change, reducing waste, enhancing biodiversity, promoting inclusion, encouraging healthy living.

So, for example, the body charged with building the Olympic Park, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), have signed up to recycle 90% of the materials from the site.  A ‘soil hospital’ existed for that very purpose. It seems to be working - the ODA boast a 97% recycling level, no mean achievement given the heavily polluted nature of most of the 538 acres being worked on. An area the equivalent of St Pauls Cathedral to Oxford Circus.

Aside from the railway shunting yards, over seven hundred different businesses used ‘London’s backyard’ – from gas works to concrete crushers and all had left their stains. The site actually contained a nuclear reactor, firing up fuel rods for radiotherapy departments of local hospitals. The Velopark is being built on the site of the old Hackney dump, which in turn was built on East London’s rubble from the Blitz of World War II.

Another commitment is to minimise the use of the surrounding roads to reduce the main menace of any construction site – dust. The majority of new building materials are coming in by rail with the railways being the first component to be worked on. With the completion of the 3 Mills Lock, it is hoped goods will once again travel by water via the Lea.

Biodiversity and healthy living

Once the Big Build eases off in 2011 – in time for test events at all the venues – the architects and engineers’ attention can shift to landscaping and to the restoration of the much maligned River Lea. Water plants native to the site were removed during the demolition phase, and are being propagated in Pembrokeshire. Bats, swifts and kingfishers were enticed to temporary homes north of the site. The north side of the Park will be given over to wildlife refuges, while the southern half will more closely reflect the British love of formal greenery. After all, one of the charms of London so often mentioned by visitors, is the city’s parks. The newly embanked and planted Lea with its Bow Back rivers, will have moorings for floating cafes, restaurants and theatres.

The future

But ‘sustainability’ means Legacy, and that means the future. For the Olympic Park to have a future it must become more than an attractive green space with waterways and an on-going event programme. It has to be somewhere that Londoners will want to visit, to live and work in.

The Olympic Park Legacy Company has been set up (which includes Andrew Mawson) to make sure the 2012 Games leave appreciable benefits for local people. The Athletes Village will become Stratford Village with schools, health centres and affordable housing. In the Olympic Park concrete concourses will revert to grass paths. Temporary venues such as the Basketball Arena will be moved. The Stadium, Aquatics Centre and Velodrome will lose their additional Olympic seating and find new lives as useable, workable buildings.

Jerome Frost, Head of Design at the ODA predicts that it will take 20 years to create a new piece of London. That will be long after London has passed the baton of the Sustainable Olympics onto Rio, and the future.


Olympic Site Walking Tour

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